Human Voices Drown Us by Sandra Hunter



Sandra Hunter’s short stories have been published in a number of literary magazines, including ZyzzyvaZoetrope All-Story and the North Dakota Quarterly. Her novel Losing Touch is to be published in 2013.

Nominated for Pushcart Prize.

I want to do this. I keep telling the body we want this; this is it. But the body has other ideas. It flails and kicks and flat out refuses to do the drowning business. I keep trying to convince us, the body and me; the pain will stop.

But drowning is having your chest torn open with white-hot iron pincers. I can’t hold on to my traitor arms and legs (you never said anything about this). The body races for the surface, airair, air.

And just as I come up, I can tell something else is there. At first I’m too busy throwing up and coughing against the pain and the water hitting me in the face. I’m heaving and sputtering and spitting. And then I see him about twenty yards away: big round head bobbing up and down on a pink skirt. Except, as I see more clearly, he’s got this huge Hawaiian shirt floating around him.

I wait. He hasn’t seen me, or he’s seen me and he’ll go away. What are the chances? The one time I really want to be alone.

He’s casually bobbing nearer trying not to move his arms, but I can see it. Finally, he’s within shouting distance.


If I say nothing maybe he’ll go.

–So, hey.

I wait and he takes that as an invitation to come closer.

–So, uh, I saw you.

He wants to watch?

–I saw you from back there. Lechuza’s a nice beach, right? If you can get past the private security guards. And I saw you. And I thought, there she goes for a paddle. Whoa. She’s not paddling. She’s going all the way in. But she doesn’t have her swimsuit on: is she crazy? Ha ha. I mean, who goes swimming with all their clothes on? So, if you’re not going swimming, I thought––I’m Bob by the way.

He smiles. He’s here to rescue me. I have to make him leave.

–So, Bob. Wonder if that shark will come back.

A lot of thrashing around.

–Shark? There’s a shark?

–Two months ago. Great White.

– Great White?

–It’s the ocean, I point out.

–We’re gonna get eaten by a shark?

Not that I care much, but the shark’d probably go for him first since he’s got that seal-shape thing going on.

–They don’t actually eat you. They just take chunks—

–I know what they do. I don’t want some goldurn shark taking goldurn chunks out of me. I didn’t plan to get eaten.

He says goldurn?

–Well nobody plans to get eaten. It’s not like you make some plan

–Wouldja shut up?

We float for a while.

–You could swim back, you know, before the shark shows up.

–You think I’m out for some goldurn swim? I’m here for a greater purpose.

Despite his greater purpose he says goldurn a lot. That emphatic language means feeling. I’m over feelings. I’ve had way too much feeling in my life.

I float on my back. It’s like lying on Uncle Pham’s man-cave-lounge-bed he got from a yard sale. It’s lumpy but in a gentle, good way. This ocean sofa pushes me up and down, a small thread on an unraveling quilt.

So. Yeah. I got skin cancer. Used to be a hand model. Nothing about me yells model: allergies, skinny legs, big ass, and bulges where you’re meant to have a waist. But I did have nice hands. I’d get a call and go into the studio: housewife’s hand holding yogurt cup, seductive hand holding glass of wine, excited hand grabbing smartphone.

This job was mine, a new start after the stuff with the boyfriend back in Fremont, who said he’d never have married a weirdo like me anyway, and who also said he’d shoot me after I had the abortion he refused to pay for, yada yada yada. So, I left and came to down to LA, a city of weirdos, where I just disappeared.

This hand model job was anonymous, and no one asked questions. Want to know how many people will hire you after you get skin cancer?

This is my second attempt. First was off the second story of a parking lot. Just broke a lot of stuff: no exit visa. Ended up with one leg shorter than the other.

I decide to say something about his language.

–You say goldurn a lot.

–You don’t know what I’ve been through.

He begins to sob.

I try to say something comforting. He did swim out here, after all.

–Some way to go, right? Get chomped by a shark, you’re bleeding to death and then that attracts other sharks—

–Is that all you can say? Did your boyfriend suggest you come out here?

And then he clears his throat.

–Look, I know it must be hard. I mean, you’re out here, just a lonely person like me—

He pauses. I wait.

–I bet all your boyfriends—did you have boyfriends? I bet they treated you badly, right? Listen, you don’t want to let a few assholes get you down. I met a lot of assholes in my life and I’m doing fine.

I watch him bobbing up and down. He doesn’t look like he’s doing fine. And that sympathetic speech would vanish pretty quickly if he saw the lesions on my hands and arms. There’s a pattern on my back, too. They’re gradually moving around my body, interleaving me in my own forest.

–I mean. I got stuff going on, too. You know? Sometimes, it’s too much to take. All I wanted was a little sympathy. Someone to listen. But oh no. She couldn’t do that. I told her to leave. Threw her out. Best thing I ever did.

I start paddling my feet to move away. But he sticks with me.

–I’m a good person. I don’t ask for much. It’s pretty funny, don’t you think? You and me out here?

I listen to the lap-lap of the water.

–Sometimes I think it’s not worth going on. Like I might do something desperate. You know?

Lap-lap. I can tell by the struggling splashing that he’s doing his best to keep up with me. And then we sort of stop at the same time. And I lay back on the ocean-lounge-bed.

–You, uh, you got your whole life ahead of you.


There’s this fat-guy sigh, and he says,

–Okay. Well, I suppose that’s it. Nothing for it, then. If even you don’t want… Well, this is it. Here I go. I’m going now. The end. You say something? Okay. Farewell.

There are a lot of watery smacking sounds and I know he’s gone down.

Bubbles are the giveaway. There’s nothing but bubbles here. Fish bubbles. Seaweed bubbles. Maybe shark bubbles for all I know, except they’d be bigger. Or maybe you just don’t get that warning. Maybe sharks are bubble-free and that’s part of their success.

But Hero Bob’s gone down. Not only that, but I frightened him with the shark stuff.

I dive. It takes a few seconds to find him but he’s not that far from the surface; a dark blob. I grab hold of his shirt and haul him up. He bounces around. Bob’s Big Buoy.

He chokes and throws up. I beat him on the shoulders. He’s a big guy. Maybe 280 or more. It’s like beating a wet sofa. And then there’s the gasping and gagging, and his voice, when it comes, sounds like he’s punched a hole in it.


I let him go. He splashes a lot. I have a picturesque thought: He looks like Old Testament God in a paddling pool, but without the beard.

I say,

–You’re okay.

He coughs a lot. When his voice comes it’s mean sounding and small, like the salt water shrunk it.

–Bitch. You think you’ve had pain. You don’t even know what pain is. You’re just—

And I don’t want to listen anymore. I’ve had enough of people telling me I’m just fill-in-the-blank.

I roll over onto my front and swim away from him. Long, slow strokes.

–Hey—hey! Come back here, bitch.

I can hear him splashing as he tries to follow.

–Bitch! Bitch!

It’s like this is my name and I should heel.

–You can’t leave me out here—

I can hear the splashing as he tries to follow.

We’re still not far from shore. I can see the breakwater and the rocks that I walked over just an hour ago.

His voice comes across the water, jumping the waves.

–seen you sitting on the beach crying—

–could just talk—

–to take advantage—

And I roll over onto my side like I’m rolling in Uncle Pham’s mattress, and the ocean just takes me down.

I can feel my hair lifting around me. I can just see Bob’s legs kicking. I breathe out, out, out. If I can sink enough. If I can numb the body. In a few minutes there will be a pink-red cloud, a fine-threaded abstract sculpture of the lungs.

And as I drop, and the burning begins to razor up from gut to throat, a broad-headed shape moves past. Dark, wide, surging up toward the bubbles surrounding Bob’s feet.

Just one single thrusting movement and the feet disappear. The blooming spreads fast. I don’t see anything of Bob, just a writhing mass of shark muscle.

Chunks of something, maybe Bob, float down through the green water. I reach out to one as the quick, black comes flashing at me. I hold the chunk out, like a talisman, like a wand, like I’m feeding something at the zoo.

Everything churns around me and I’m punched sideways, backward, tumbling over until I don’t know if I’m heading toward the ocean floor or up to the surface.

I’m dead-I’m dead-I’m dead.

Pounding in my chest and head and shoulders and legs. I’m almost out of oxygen. The irony: I’m going to die because of some short-sighted, cartilage-head monster.

The water clears. No grey submarine shape. I don’t know where the surface is. I’m dizzy and I can’t see anything. I don’t know if it’s safe to move. I don’t care anymore if the shark’s circling back. I try to swim through the water. My legs sag, drop.

And, unbelievably, my feet hit the bottom. Did the shark flip me out to the shallows? I push up and break the surface. I can’t see. I can’t hear. I can’t breathe for pain. Retching. Heaving.

And the air is bursting my lungs with color and sun. And my ears crack open and the world rushes back in as the water shoves me out onto the dark sand.

My legs won’t push me any further. I can’t sit up. My head is a balloon. And all this red red red.

Someone drops beside me. A woman.

She pulls me further onto the sand and turns me on my stomach. She is searching my body as though it holds some small, fragile treasure. My body comes back as she touches my legs, my stomach, my arms, my face. I can’t speak. My throat feels rusted over. Her voice is clear on her phone. An accident.

–I called the ambulance. Don’t move. I used to work in ER. God, you are lucky.

I can’t speak. My throat feels rusted over.

–So, so lucky.

I look out at the water. Nothing is there. The waves move up and down. Except for a darkness on the surface, nothing is there. Bob never followed me out, never tried to get me to save him, never said bitch, bitch, was never hit by a train-sized animal. Bob never was. The waves keep rolling in, washing the stories away from the stony beach. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

And I am sucking small, bloody breaths into my bleeding lungs, sticky clots on my mouth and cheeks. And I am an ugly woman with no one and nothing except cancer lesions. And I am lucky, lucky, lucky.